Blame Congress and Pork, Not NASA

by Rand Simberg on September 23, 2011 · 18 comments

in Space

Over at National Review today, I have a lengthy but necessary rebuttal of a misbegotten post at The Corner by Rory Cooper of the Heritage Foundation which mistakenly castigates NASA for the sins of Congress. As I say there:

Senators Hutchison (who is retiring next year) and Nelson (who is likely to be defeated next year) are the rocket scientists behind the design of the Senate Launch System. They insisted that NASA spend three billion on it and Orion just this year alone, making it in effect the biggest earmark in the budget for a business case that won’t close (think of it as “Shuttlyndra”). NASA didn’t “inflate the cost estimates” — they came up with an estimate to accelerate the schedule so it might have meaningful capability sometime in this decade. When Congress screamed about it, they went back to the more sedate one. Booz Allen Hamilton came out with an independent cost assessment that indicated NASA’s cost estimates in the out years were optimistic. But Senators Hutchison and Nelson (and Hatch and Shelby and others with pigs in the fight) insisted on a bipartisan basis that NASA move forward with their rocket to nowhere, because all they care about is jobs in their states this election cycle. And the rest of Congress doesn’t care at all, because space policy isn’t very important in the context of trillion-dollar deficits, a stagnant economy, and a meltdown of the Eurozone.

Meanwhile, the most near-term solution to eliminating our dependence on the Russians is to accelerate the Commercial Crew activities, for which the administration requested $850M for 2012. For a few billion (as opposed to the tens of billions that the SLS will cost), we could have multiple competitive commercial providers of access to and from the ISS and low-earth orbit within three years. These would include Boeing and the United Launch Alliance with their reliable Atlas and Delta rockets, and actually spawn a useful new industry with competition to drive down costs, enabling innovative and affordable means of serious space exploration in the next decade through which America could once again lead the world. But the House appropriated only about $300M for it, and while the Senate version of the bill appropriates $500M, it holds $200M of it hostage to progress on the SLS. Yesterday, the relevant House authorization committee had a show hearing featuring the first man and last man to walk on the moon, for no apparent purpose. All of which indicates that for all their noise about losing leadership and risks to our national security, the legislative branch continues to be profoundly unserious about our future in space.

The House hearing yesterday was really quite appalling. It saddens me to see heroes of the Apollo era reduced to shilling for unrealistic statist goals for a doddering (Republican) committee chairman, while denigrating American industry. Captain Cernan claimed that commercial firms wouldn’t fly people for a decade, as though he was privy to their plans or capabilities when in fact there is no reason they couldn’t be flying in three or four years, given adequate funding. As for bringing the Shuttle out of retirement, or using the SLS for crew delivery in the near term, it both technically and fiscally unrealistic. It would take billions and years to resurrect the supply chain for the Shuttle, and we’d just be back in the dangerous expensive world that we left when we finally decided to retire it. And as I wrote at Pajamas Media earlier this week: “Perhaps the best headline for yesterday’s story was from a wag who tweeted: ‘NASA Announces Next Rocket To Be Canceled In A Few Years.’” SLS is nothing but a make-work program, and the sooner the agency is allowed to stop wasting money on it, the better off both the taxpayers and those interested in actual progress in space will be.

It’s also frustrating to have to continually rebut ill-informed and partisan pieces from supposed conservatives supporting big-government space jobs programs. It’s also ironic, considering that it puts me in the bizarre position of having to defend the Obama administration, but it seems to have become my lot in life.

Petr Jandacek September 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm

What were we thinking??? Once we had invested into Alaska we could not depend on Canadian or Russian Navy to taxi us to and from Fairbanks. Once we invested BIG TIME into the “International” Space Station we cannot depend on capricious Russian taxi drivers. Astronauts Armstrong and Cernan are absolutely right. We must fix up the old Jalopy Shuttles and use them and re-use them. They will be cheaper and more dependable in the long run and short than extortion by the Russians.

Eric September 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm

Petr, stop saying idiotic things. You really make yourself look stupid.

Rand Simberg September 24, 2011 at 4:56 pm

They will be cheaper and more dependable in the long run and short than extortion by the Russians.

No, they won’t. Even with the Shuttle, we were dependent on the Russians, and have been for over a decade, because the Shuttle cannot serve as a lifeboat for the station, as the Soyuz does. The only near-term solution is to fund Commercial Crew and get a couple of American providers going. It’s also the lowest-cost solution.

McRayzeR September 24, 2011 at 11:43 pm

Why not unmothball (if that is a word) the X-38 as the “life boat”?

Ryan September 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Because the X stands or more then just a letter near the end of the alphabet. X-38 was an experiment.

AndyS September 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm

“It would take billions and years to resurrect the supply chain for the Shuttle?”

The one that launched less than three months ago?

Tom Billings September 23, 2011 at 11:53 pm

Yes, Andy. The one that launched 3 months ago was doing it with the last possible available External Tank. That was because production for them began to slow long before 2008, under Mike Griffin’s leadership of NASA. Not only that, but at the same time, many smaller shuttle suppliers have moved on to other markets, and while they were in when there was the Shuttle funding train to ride, along with a substantial aerospace industry buying their wares, today the costs to the government to restart that supply chain would cost many times more, and take much longer than commercial rides.

Coastal Ron September 24, 2011 at 12:02 am

The last Shuttle that launched used up the last of the flyable Shuttle hardware, which is why there was no available Shuttle to act as a rescue vehicle in case there was a problem with foam strikes (yet again).

The production lines for the Shuttle hardware were shut down years ago, and it would take years (and Billions) to reconstitute them.

Congress had the chance to keep the production lines open while Bush was President, but they refused. Once Obama took office, there was nothing to salvage even if he wanted to keep the program going (which he didn’t, and neither did Congress).

Even now Congress has no desire to bring the Shuttle back, otherwise they would have put something in the budget. It’s dead Jim.

AndyS September 26, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Thank you for the reply, I didn’t know that. I’m guessing the common opinion here is that a private company can develop, test, and launch a vehicle for manned space flight before the government could bring the shuttle back on line.

Trent Waddington September 24, 2011 at 3:27 am

Ya know that big orange thing? They build a new one of those every time it launches.. each one is like an intricate work of art inside. All the production lines used to make all the parts? Ended a few years ago.. everyone has other jobs now, all the tooling was scrapped. Resurrecting the Shuttle is about as practical as resurrecting the Saturn V.. I can understand how you might be confused by the paint job on the SLS but it really is hard to making something after you shut down the factories that make it.

AndyS September 26, 2011 at 7:00 pm

“Ya know that big orange thing? ”
Thanks for the condescending reply smart guy.

Eric September 24, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Yes, that one. You know, the one they scrapped the tooling for several years ago? Which means they would have to re-create all of that tooling from old paper blueprints (if they can find them) before they can build a single new external tank? Never mind the other spare parts that don’t exist.

Eric September 24, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Yes, that one. You know, the one that they scrapped the tooling for a couple of years ago? Do you think there are stacks of expendables just lying around? They’re gone, used up.

Rand Simberg September 24, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Yes,the one that launched less than three months ago. We used the last external tank to do that. It would take a couple years to resurrect the production lines for it, as well as other spares, and cost billions. There were reasons we retired the Shuttle. They didn’t go away just because Congress is behaving idiotically and not adequately funding commercial crew.

McRayzeR September 24, 2011 at 11:45 pm

How long will it take “the corporate machines” to spool up? To spool up a properly tested and documented system?

Karl Hallowell September 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm

“We must fix up the old Jalopy Shuttles and use them and re-use them.”

For how much? As I see it, if you restart the supply chain and build a few new orbiters to bring the fleet up to viable levels, you basically bought another ISS. Might as well learn how to supply the ISS without the Shuttle.

Philly Jimi September 24, 2011 at 11:35 pm

Thanks for this post. I actually watched the entire NASA hearing on CSpan that Charles Bolden gave back in July. It was amazing how the members of congress were just begging Bolden to give them a budget of about $3 billion/year so they could fund this. They didn’t one question about did the rocket actually do anything, was there a better value in the commercial market, was this a viable rocket in the long run, etc.. I think most of the congress people knew only one thing, and that was that there were people in their district that had jobs under the shuttle program and they wanted to keep those jobs in their district. It was difficult to come to any other conclusion after watching the entire video.

If Bolden told them they were strapping a shuttle rocket engine on a corn silo and bolting a RV to the top they would of been happy. It didn’t matter as long as they had something for the voters so they could try to get reelected. They they break out Armstrong and Cernan in an effective attempt to grab front page news and to solidify their pitch from an established authority. Nothing like sticking the tax payers with a $18 billion bill so a few congress people from the “space states” can try to get reelected.

Mekhong Kurt September 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

Mr. Simberg, you can’t imagine how delighted I am to find someone who is apparently a genuine conservative arguing against the ponies trotting around pretending to be conservatives.

As NASA holds a very special place in my heart, I’m constantly defending it — and President Obama — against some of the trash talk heaped on them by these vote-stalking, I’ll-say-anything yoyo’s posing in Congress. Just today I took on another commentator at another story who insisted that President Obama cancelled the space shuttle, which I did by providing him links to President Bush’s January 14, 2004 speech in which HE announced the end of it.

I’m posting the link to your article on my Facebook page.

(By the way, I hope you wear full-body protective gear — you’re not running with mere wolves: you’re running with jackals and hyenas.)

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